The A38 between Gloucester and Tewkesbury could not be described as a scenic route. The former trunk road was superseded by the M5 motorway, but remains busy with local traffic. The vehicles are numerous enough to require traffic lights or roundabouts at particular junctions. Passing along the road in a line of cars, there was not much to catch the eye. A rainy afternoon in mid-November when everything around seemed grey was not a moment to expect anything that might capture the imagination.
To the left of the road, a both of smoke appeared, a puff of smoke that moved to and fro, swinging this way and that. The puff of smoke materialised into a murmuration of starlings – not a huge number, but enough to be noticed. The flock of birds dipped and dived whatever reason it is that starlings thus behave.
It seemed a Nevil Shute moment, a moment when there was a realisation that humanity is incidental to existence, that the world might be better by itself.
Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, tells of the final days of humanity, those left in southern Australia after a global thermo-nuclear war has eliminated all signs of life elsewhere. The last survivors are awaiting the clouds of radiation that will bring an end to their lives. A naval officer believes it to be the end of the world, in an oddly upbeat retort, a scientist asserts that is nothing of the sort:
“It’s—it’s the end of the world. I’ve never had to imagine anything like that before.”
“It’s not the end of the world at all. It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”
“I suppose that’s right. . . .” He paused, thinking of the flowering trees that he had seen on shore through the periscope, cascaras and flame trees, the palms standing in the sunlight. “Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this,” he said.
The scientist said, “That’s absolutely and precisely right.”
Reading creation narratives with Year 7 students brought the realisation that humanity is not just silly, it is arrogant in its assumptions that the planet exists for human convenience. Who says that humanity has the right to think thus? Humanity does, of course. The Genesis stories are used to undergird a culture of exploitation and irresponsibility, yet the world no more needs humanity than a murmuration of starlings needs someone to watch them.